Criminal Defense in Orange County

The Community Caretaker Doctrine

Although detaining individuals without a warrant is usually illegal, there is an exception in the law known as the "community caretaker" doctrine that allows the police, in certain cases, to act in order to help distressed citizens, even if there is no warrant and no reasonable suspicion that a crime is about to transpire. The community caretaker doctrine as applied to drunk driving cases was clearly illustrated in one Montana case where the defendant was asleep in a car on the side of the road.

The defendant had been asleep with the headlights off and the engine running. A police officer, concerned for the person's safety, knocked on the door and, when the driver did not wake up, opened the door. At this point, the officer realized that the defendant was intoxicated. The Montana Supreme Court found that the police officer's intrusion into the car was lawful.

The court also created a test for implementing the community caretaker doctrine:

  • First, there must be objective, specific, and articulable facts that lead an experienced officer to believe that a citizen might be in need of help or in danger.
  • Second, if the citizen is in need of assistance, the officer may take appropriate action to mitigate the danger or render assistance to the citizen.
  • Third, once the officer is assured that the peril is no longer present, any actions beyond that constitute a seizure subject to Fourth Amendment review.

This exemption is very limited, however, and if you were detained under the community caretaker doctrine, it is possible you were detained illegally. Some states have adopted certain guidelines or thresholds on the doctrine that substantially limits its scope. In one Texas case, the court imposed guidelines for the community caretaker doctrine and reversed the conviction of a drunk driver. The Texas officer had observed the defendant pull his car over to the shoulder, and it appeared to the officer that the person in the passenger seat was vomiting out the open passenger side door.

When the officer pulled up behind the defendant, the defendant went back onto the road and was eventually stopped. The Texas court found that stopping the car was unlawful and did not meet the community caretaker doctrine. The factors used by the court were: the nature and level of distress exhibited, the individual's location, whether the individual was alone or had assistance other than the officer, and the extent to which the individual presented a danger to himself or others.

The California Supreme Court imposed a similarly high threshold on the community caretaker exception, mandating that a substantial risk to life or the possibility of major property damage must be present for a detention under the doctrine to be valid. If you were detained by the police on suspicion of driving under the influence, we encourage you to contact an Orange County DUI defense lawyer at The Law Office of Barney B. Gibbs for a free consultation. We can help you to determine whether or not you were lawfully detained and assist you in fighting your criminal charges.